Mali, Jan 23 – Mali’s army chief said his French-backed forces could reclaim the northern towns of Gao and fabled Timbuktu from Islamists in a month, as more offers of aid poured in for the offensive.
French planes bombed a major base of the Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) near Timbuktu, a defence ministry official said on condition of anonymity, as officials said a mansion belonging to Libyan former strongman Moamer Kadhafi was destroyed.
“In the course of the last French bombings, several jihadists died and the residence of Kadhafi which had become the headquarters of the Islamists was destroyed,” a Malian security official said, adding there were no civilian deaths.
A local resident said: “Three or four other areas housing Islamists were also bombed,” adding that three houses “used by drug-traffickers were targeted”.
International moves to aid the operations revved up with the US military airlifting French troops and equipment from France into Mali.
“We expect the mission to last for the next several days,” an AFRICOM spokesman, Chuck Prichard, told AFP in Germany.
The Pentagon said the United States would not demand payment from France for the use of US transport planes.
The US Air Force deployed a small team of airmen on the ground and C-17 cargo planes for five flights to Mali since Monday, ferrying 140 tons of supplies and 80 French troops, Pentagon officials said.
Italy said it would send three planes to Mali to help support French and Malian troops for a two- to three-month logistical mission. They include two C-130 transport planes and a Boeing 767.
And Britain said it would consider “very positively” any further French requests for logistical and surveillance support.
Britain has already loaned two C-17 transport planes to France and pledged to provide troops to a European Union mission to train the Malian army, but is not considering sending its own forces to the west African country.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon hailed France’s “courageous” intervention but expressed fears over the safety of humanitarian workers and UN employees on the ground.
A UN-backed proposed African force in Mali needed “critical logistical support” to help it take over from French forces.
Ivory Coast said it would deploy 500 soldiers for the African force and Togo has boosted its troop allotment to at least 733 from 500 pledged earlier.
Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, Spain and the United Arab Emirates are also providing transport planes or helicopters required to help move the African and French troops around Mali’s vast expanses.
But a former French junior European minister meanwhile warned of the consequences of France’s military intervention.
“There is no coalition to help France. Europeans are not eager to help us,” Pierre Lellouche of the opposition UMP party told the Parisien newspaper. “It’s a bit like going it alone in Afghanistan.”
“Is there any appeal for NATO forces?,” he said, adding that President Francois Hollande “has not called for a European summit”.
France began its military operation on January 11 and has said it could deploy upwards of 2,500 troops which would eventually hand over control to the African force.
General Ibrahima Dahirou Dembele said the French-backed army was forging ahead for “the total liberation of northern Mali”, in an interview with French radio station RFI, a day after it rolled into two central towns held by Islamists.
“If the support remains consistent, it won’t take more than a month to free Gao and Timbuktu,” he said, referring to two of three main cities along with Kidal, in the vast, semi-arid north which has been occupied for 10 months.
The Al-Qaeda-linked Islamists have subjected these towns to strict sharia law.
A fabled caravan town on the edge of the Sahara desert, Timbuktu was for centuries a key centre of Islamic learning and has become a byword for exotic remoteness in the Western imagination.
Today it is a battlefield, overrun by Islamist militants who have been razing its world-heritage religious.
General Dembele said troops from Niger and Chad were expected to come through Niger, which borders Mali on the east, and head to Gao, a key Islamist stronghold which has been pounded by French airstrikes.
A major boost to the regional force is a pledge by Mali’s neighbour Chad to deploy 2,000 soldiers there, which would bring the number of African soldiers to around 6,000.
The Chadian troops are battle-hardened, having quelled rebellions at home and in nearby countries such as the Central African Republic.
Egypt on Monday broke ranks with the international community saying the French-led intervention would fuel regional conflict but the head of Mali’s chief Muslim group came out in strong support of the drive.
Mahmoud Dicko said that the intervention was “not an aggression against Islam”, adding: “It was France that came to the rescue of a people in distress who had been abandoned by the Muslim countries”.
Malian Justice Minister Malick Coulibaly told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva that advances his country had made in the field of human rights were being undermined by the conflict raging across the country.
France swept to Mali’s aid 10 months after it lost over half its territory to the Islamists, amid rising fears that the vast northern half of the country could become a new Afghanistan-like haven for Al-Qaeda.